History and New Media Center at 20: Continuing its Forward Momentum

Center Director, Stephen Robertson, maps where the center has been and the directions for its future growth

by Anne Reynolds

History and New Media Center at 20: Continuing its Forward Momentum

This year, the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM) celebrated 20 years of focusing on the past in a radically new way. Through digital technology, the center has worked to bring the public into the experience of history, allowing people to not only learn, research, and organize the stories of the past, but to contribute their own voices to how those stories will be told into the future.

The key, explains center director Stephen Robertson, is that from the start, the emphasis has always been on public history. “The center came from Roy’s recognition that the Internet provided a way to get history into more people’s hands, giving more people the opportunity to make their own history,” he says.

“Roy” is Roy Rosenzweig, the first director of RRCHNM (the center was named for him in 2011). When he founded it in 1994, the concepts of “online” and “the Internet” were brand new, and the academic world, like the world at large, was busily loading information onto the new online infrastructure and looking for audiences to receive it.

“The first generation was really about the web and the ability to put things on the web, make them accessible to people on the web,” says Robertson. But beyond this, the center recognized the potential to not only make material available, but to enhance the experience of the users of that information.

“If you didn’t live in Washington, D.C.,” he explains, “you couldn’t go and visit the Library of Congress, and even if you did live in Washington, D.C., you couldn’t practically go down and do it. Suddenly the Library of Congress digitizes its collections, so anywhere you are in the world, you have access to tens of thousands of, say, 1930s photo- graphs. So that was the first digital history, and building on that is what we did.”

A natural outgrowth of the new information resource was to bring it to educators at the K–12 level, and this is precisely where the center was able to focus for many years. With sites such as TeachingHistory.org and History Matters, the center continues to bring history alive for students and teachers alike.

History Matters was the first teaching project that the center undertook. It serves as a gateway to primary materials online—such as oral history and maps—as well as a guide to more than 850 U.S. history websites and information on using online primary resources. It still receives more than a million visitors each year, and is an excellent first stop for exploring American history online.

The teachinghistory.org site, the National History Education Clearinghouse, is a central online source of tools that support vibrant K–12 history education. Providing history content, teaching materials, and best practices, it equips teachers to provide the best history education possible. The site was funded by the U.S. Department of Education as part of its Teaching American History grant program and was launched in 2007; it has consistently reached more than 2 million visitors each year.

According to Robertson, education projects like these defined the center for that first decade. The center’s interest in getting material out into the hands of K–12 teachers, plus the support from the government for such projects, made this work a good fit. The funding for these projects, however, was predominantly from National Endowment for the Humanities Division of Education Programs’ Teaching and Learning Resources and Curriculum Development grants, and the U.S. Department of Education’s Teaching American History Program. These programs no longer exist. Thus, despite its expertise and the success it has had in translating digital history into educational tools, the center has been faced with the challenge of finding new sources of support for its projects.


With funding cuts to its primary sources of support, RRCHNM is finding new avenues to use its own resources and the skills of its team. One promising strategy is to bring digital history to a new set of educators.

In the spring semester of 2015, the center launched, in collaboration with the Smithsonian Associates, a fully online program for a graduate certificate in digital public humanities. The program comprises 15 credits. Nine of these are earned through three classes:
• HIST 680: Introduction to Digital Humanities
• HIST 694: Digital Public History
• HIST 689: Teaching and Learning History in the Digital Age
The classes are available asynchronously; class materials are online for students to access at the time and location most convenient to them. At the conclusion of the classwork, each student completes the required credits by participating in a 6-credit internship in applied history. The internship is a virtual one, designed to allow students to gain experience in applying their newly attained tools and skills to digital projects with the Smithsonian Institution. Robertson explains that the online medium is a perfect one for the subject matter. “Digital history is really taught in a hands-on, project-focused way,” he says. “It’s a chance to build something, a course that reflects what we know about teaching online and what we know about the technology, and then try to exploit the possibilities of teaching digital stuff online. You’re studying things that are already online, you’re doing digital work . . . so it’s closer to what we do. There should be some ways to take advantage of that, that don’t necessarily apply to some other kinds of content.”

The center is also bringing history (and digital history) to graduate students and to teachers through a new course, Teaching Hidden History, which will debut in summer 2015.

The course is funded by the 4-VA program, an initiative of George Mason University, James Madison University, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech), and the University of Virginia (since late 2014, Old Dominion University has joined the original four). The goal of 4-VA is to use online learning to foster inter-university collaborations for educational opportunities to students throughout the commonwealth.

Teaching Hidden History is a hybrid course that combines online content with face-to-face interaction. The face-to-face component will use the special 4-VA telepresence rooms on the Mason and Virginia Tech campuses. These facilities have been used successfully for science, math, and technology initiatives; this course will serve as a model for expanding online education for humanities fields.

Kelly Schrum, faculty member in Mason’s higher education program and director of educational projects at RRCHNM, is developing the project along with doctoral students Nate Sleeter and Celeste Tường Vy Sharpe. “This is a medium that is particularly well suited to the subject matter of the class,” says Schrum. “The heart of the course is the notion that even one object can unpack a larger story. We will provide an opportunity for history and education students to strengthen their research and historical thinking skills while utilizing digital tools and exploring and creating history in an online environment.”

Students will interact through telepresence and blogs, and be able to take advantage of the asynchronous portions of the course to complete assignments at times and places convenient to them. “It is a great balance of community and flexibility,” adds Schrum.

The course is intended for graduate students and for teachers seeking recertification. “We’re really drawing a lot on the experience of Kelly and the education division who have been teaching online professional development courses for teachers for a number of years, experimenting with what works and what doesn’t work in those kinds of environments,” says Robertson.

The center is also working longer term to incorporate digital learning into the basic curriculum of history education. For the second year in a row, it has received a grant from the Getty Foundation to organize and present a summer institute in digital art history.

“Art history has gotten quite excited about the digital in the past few years, and Getty is trying to expand that by funding a whole series,” says Robertson.

Last summer, the center used a Getty Foundation grant to conduct an institute for art history faculty, librarians, and museum professionals. Using digital humanities methods and tools, the Rebuilding the Portfolio program encouraged participants to consider digital techniques to help them analyze sources and teach in new ways, as well as to find new audiences for their work. This year, the center has received a Getty Foundation grant to design and conduct a summer institute geared to art history graduate students, to teach digital tools and methods that they can take with them throughout their careers.

Robertson says that the earlier digital methods become part of a scholar’s life, the better. “Oddly,” he says, “we often get as much resistance from our students as we do from other faculty to taking on these new kinds of things. A lot of our students arrive at university already set in the way that they do things from high school. So part of the imperative to get this stuff into high schools would be to get it where they form a sense of what they’re comfortable with.”


Boosting comfort with digital tools—among the academic community as well as among the public—is one of the most important ways that the center will keep growing in the future.

The center stepped into the field of software development with the introduction of Zotero in 2006, an open source (i.e., free) research tool that a user downloads and adds to a web browser. As the user conducts research online, Zotero recognizes and catalogues the source of the content being examined. These references can then be organized, shared, and analyzed.

This tool was a new direction for the center. “It’s one thing to build websites,” says Robertson. “It’s another thing entirely to build software. So that was a fundamental transformation in what the center was doing. It brought money from [the Andrew M.] Mellon [Foundation], amongst other people, so it got the center on the radar. This was an enormous success, he says, which “spawned all sorts of developments and efforts to use Zotero to do different kinds of things and different sorts of projects.”

Zotero has been widely adopted by historians and non- historians alike, and it paved the way for another significant software project: Omeka.

Omeka is a web publishing platform that allows individuals and institutions to manage content and create interactive online exhibits, which can be easily customized with plug-ins and themes to improve the work experience as well as the finished product.

Robertson enthusiastically embraces the center’s branching into software as a natural extension of its original work. “We built Omeka originally because we were building exhibits for people, and every time we’d build an exhibit we’d build another software package from scratch, and it became rapidly clear that that made no sense.”

They decided to build a platform, initially for their own use, that they could then make available to everyone else. “It’s an entry-level tool. It allows [users] to build collections of material online and build exhibits about them,” he explains. “One of the interesting things about Omeka is that it was designed for libraries and archives and museums, but it is increasingly being used like I do, in classrooms. In fact, an online exhibit presents a really interesting alternative to essay writing—you can have the students do a lot of the same research, and technical analysis, and writing, but also explore what those things look like in a digital setting, and end up with something that’s outward facing. It’s not just something that’s handed in to a teacher and filed away in a drawer forever. This project really goes out there in the world and has a second kind of life.”

He also sees software as a source of potential funding into the future. “It’s not a single grant, it’s a grant that begets other grants and other spin-offs,” he says, adding that it’s “one idea that births all sorts of new possibilities, so you don’t get just this kind of blip, and you’re thinking of timelines. It’s this thing that’s going to run in various forms across various grants for 10 years. And that’s why the center is still around, because it didn’t just have a couple of good ideas and finish them. It actually had these ideas that opened up all sorts of new possibilities, and that’s what Omeka is doing now.”


The changes in the center’s activities, while undertaken in part by the availability of funding sources, reflect the ways in which the online landscape has shifted since the center’s founding in 1994. But its original mission remains unchanged. “A lot of this is about being responsive to a changing environment and a change in the tools that are out there as well,” says Robertson. “The second generation of digital humanities has been increasingly about building tools to analyze all this material that’s now online. 

“You don’t do digital for the sake of doing digital,” he continues. “You do digital because it offers you the ability to do something you wouldn’t be able to do without it... what kind of questions do you want to ask, and what kind of ways do you want to answer them, and what can you do that gives you a different sort of perspective on that?”

In the end, he concludes, “It’s still part of that public history, working to put information into people’s hands and reaching for a wider audience. And it’s that cross-section that’s really the calling card that I kind of drop on people. Other universities have much more narrowly defined audiences than we do, and always have. Roy was always interested in working with teachers, always interested in working with museums, and archives, and libraries, and he was always interested in working with scholars. So we do all three, and we have a kind of unrivaled expertise in dealing with an audience that others don’t.”